Political PR: Race for the White House

The Race Before the Race

Politics -- especially the race for the White House -- is a great case study in public relations.

Actors can disappear for months, filming, and only pop into view for red carpet appearances and media blitzes to promote their latest movies. Pro athletes can stay in public view without saying a word. Authors are judged more on the words they write than what they say.

But candidates for president are in the public eye all day, every day.

Microphones and TV cameras follow them everywhere. Whatever they say or do is studied and dissected not only by the press and public but by political insiders and stakeholders from coast to coast.

So as the political race is just getting underway, it's worth looking at public relations strategy and tactics at the highest level of politics.

The Race Before the Race

Your average person might hear "running for president" and think of the endless TV ads. But those typically come into play at the end of a political campaign.

The race starts long before the TV ads.

In fact, it begins at least one year before the first caucus in Iowa, and that year is  a public relations battle.

Different Messages for Different Audiences

The conventional wisdom is Republican candidates run to the right (and Democrats to the left) during the primaries, then run to the center during the general election.

Before the primaries start, it's even more complicated than that.

Candidates are trying to appeal to incredibly different audiences:

  • big donors around the nation
  • stakeholders and interest groups
  • party bigwigs in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina
  • veteran campaign staffers and consultants they're trying to hire
  • columnists and pundits who can help pump up -- or snuff out -- their White House hopes
  • solid primary voters who pay attention to debates and forums

Shaking Hands and Kissing Babies

Because they don't have the money to run national TV ads this early, candidates try to drum up press however they can to pump up their name recognition and visibility. They try to comment to national reporters on national and international stories, post on Twitter and Facebook, attend county fairs in tiny Iowa counties and pancake breakfasts in New Hampshire.

Knocking on doors (doorbelling, in the business) is basically impossible as a strategy if you're running for Congress or a statewide office in anything other than a tiny state. Yet you see candidates for president doing politics one voter at a time. Why?

Two reasons: First, the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary are small enough that you can reach out to a decent number of people one-on-one, whether it's talking to voters in a greasy spoon diner or shaking hands outside a factory.

Second, candidates don't just get the personal contact with individual voters. Since their every move gets filmed and reported and discussed, millions of people might see them knocking on doors to talk with voters in New Hampshire or talking to a farmer in Iowa about bucking hales back on an uncle's ranch.

Foreign Trips, Opeds and Endless Debates

Before the primaries, start is also the only time candidates have time to travel abroad to boost their foreign policy credentials. You can't take a week off once the campaign's begun to fly around the world to meet the prime minister of Japan and the king of Saudi Arabia.

It's also when you see candidates writing opeds about issues of the day, laying out new and different ideas. Once the campaign has truly started, newspapers are more reluctant to print such pieces.

But the biggest events are probably the debates. There are dozens of forums and debates and town halls featuring whichever candidates will show up. And these debates matter. Frontrunners are supposed to keep their cool and be presidential. Longshots try to rattle the frontrunners and shake up the race by throwing rhetorical bombs.

Managing the Press and Expectations

Then there's the press management side. If you're a public figure -- or a public relations pro -- a presidential race is an amazing case study in how to handle, or mishandle, the press.

The balance is tricky. A candidate who's great at one-liners and loves to talk to the press can get great coverage, if you allow unfettered access. Yet it only takes a single terrible gaffe to kill a candidacy. On the other hand, blocking access to the candidate makes reporters mad that they're traveling around the country to cover somebody who never talks to them. They may as well be watching the candidate on TV and writing about it.

John McCain scored serious brownie points by giving reporters unheard-of access to him on his bus, the Straight Talk Express, during his failed run for the nomination.

When he ran a second time, he didn't give the press the same open access. Right away, his coverage changed. It didn't matter how McCain treated the press compared to other candidates. The press compared him to his previous self.

This is a common thread in how the press and public reacts to public figures of all types. You aren't always compared to your peers. They compare you against expectations.

Edited by Laura Lake